Little Richard has always been something of a cartoon, but for many years now his image has overshadowed his music. For a long time I’ve had trouble thinking of him as anything but the black Rip Taylor—I imagine they may have borrowed from each other’s shticks at some point. Back in the late 90s I caught a double bill with Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis at Ravinia, and though the Killer pulled his own worn-out bit (wrecking the piano bench, et cetera), he could still sing like a motherfucker. Little Richard just ran around like an agitated Tasmanian Devil.
So it’s nice to be reminded how great Little Richard was when his persona was a complement to his wild music, not just a cover-up for his artistic stagnancy. On Tuesday, Specialty Records releases the 25-track budget CD The Very Best of Little Richard, and though this material has been endlessly repackaged over the years, it still burns. Richard’s output from his fertile period between 1955 and ’57 is collected here, and taken together, his immortal hits (“Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Keep A-Knockin'”) and his less ubiquitous tunes form a mighty oeuvre of unhinged rocking, a manic amplification of 50s R & B that suggested a man who’d totally lost his grip and surrendered to his most animalistic impulses.
As the liner notes explain, producer Otis Blackwell heard Little Richard as little more than a standard-issue R & B singer during the sessions they were working together—until Richard, starved for some attention during a lunch break, ripped into “Tutti Frutti, Good Booty,” delivering a performance as ribald as the lyrics. Blackwell’s trick was to tone down the lyrics without losing the dirty intensity of the performance. Soon after, Pat Boone topped Richard on the charts with covers of “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti” that purged every last bit of that intensity, but I like to think that if both versions came out today, things would shake out differently.
Frank Kimbrough, Air (Palmetto)
Various Artists, Roots Man Dub (Heartbeat)
Steven Bernstein, Diaspora Suite (Tzadik)
Bajeddoub & Souiri, The Art of Mawwâl (Institut du Monde Arabe)
Krzysztof Komeda, Cul-de-Sac & Knife in the Water (Harkit)